A focused, calm mind is a true friend, while an anxious, jumpy or brooding mind causes us much trouble. Can you think of a time when your mind was at peace or in deep concentration? Once, when scuba diving, I hovered for many minutes above a giant manta ray in the Pacific Ocean. I felt fearless, my mind totally absorbed with the awe and beauty of the moment. As a teenager, despite being sensitive to crowds and noise, I had a special talent for shooting free throws with great accuracy. As I stood at the free throw line and gazed at the basket, all sounds of the crowd faded away, and my mind became absorbed in the ball, the basket, and the movement of my body. This was long before I had any training or practice in yoga and meditation. These moments were glimpses into the capacity of the mind to be one-pointed, to rest in the experience of deep peace and quiet regardless of external circumstances.
Yoga practitioners discovered 1000’s of years ago that the mind’s ability to rest in an experience of deep peace or to be completely absorbed in the present moment can be cultivated. It is very much like exercising physical muscles. In order to run a marathon or bench press 250 pounds, a person needs to train. It’s the same with learning to focus the mind. Modern neuroscience now informs us that experience shapes the brain – that we can create new neural connections throughout our lives.
“Mantra,” in sanskrit, is sometimes translated as “to protect or to free” from the mind. My experience is that repeating mantra protects me from my own mind – from it’s tendency to drag me to the past, to scheme and worry about the future, or to otherwise resist the present moment. By noticing my breath and connecting to a silent mantra, I can settle, interrupt a negative pattern, and be “free” of the mind’s chatter in order to connect to the mantra’s higher vibration. Then, I can be open to what’s REALLY happening in the moment, from a more centered state.
“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.” ~Mark Twain
Have you ever wasted a day worrying about something that never came to pass? Mantra is an amazing tool for interrupting negative thinking patterns. “why did she say…?” “what’s wrong with me/you?” “I never….” “What if…” etc. Mantra practice teaches us to stop feeding our thoughts (of worry, desire, dread, etc.), and instead to focus our attention on a mantra. With repetition, the mind is strengthened in its capacity to settle and focus.
In the classes that I teach to mothers, we first learn and connect to the natural breath mantra, “Ham Sah.” “Ham Sah” means “I am That,” referring to our True Selves or our higher selves – that part of us that already knows an experience of deep peace, happiness, and freedom. (From a yogic perspective, this is the same part we connect to in a beautiful moment with nature or when absorbed in concentration in activities such as sports, music and art). We “train” on our meditation cushions, coming back to the “Ham Sah” over and over, allowing thoughts to release and the mind to settle. Over time, with regular practice, it becomes easier to notice when your mind is not being your friend and to make a choice to connect to the mantra.
Since thoughts lead to words and actions, it is a very good thing to be aware of our thoughts. For example, as a parent, when my thoughts urge me to punish, be intrusive, or avoid needed action, I can pause, breathe, and connect to “ham sah” before speaking or acting. This creates an opportunity for responsiveness rather than reactivity. Remember that the goal of a sanskrit mantra is both to protect the mind and ultimately to connect the practitioner to his/her spiritual center. Moving from this center, it is natural to be more flexible, creative and loving in my actions. This sets an important foundation for parenting in ways that engage cooperation, build on strengths, and are based on mutual respect. It also helps to free me from getting stuck in patterns of self-criticism or trying to control people, and has led to the opportunity for more joy in my role as parent and in my life in general.
I’m looking forward to continuing to explore mantra and all of its benefits, and to offering some wonderful programs for parents this fall.
“What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson